Buddhism is much older than any western religion and hence quite rich in cultural influences and the merging of existing religions throughout its history. Similar to Christianity, the preexisting religions at the time gave great influence to the various schools of Buddhism and have impregnated each branch with its own distinct character. Yet at the same time, all Buddhists hold to the basic tenets taught by Gautama Siddhartha Shakyamuni, the Buddha, such as the four noble truths, the three jewels, the Precepts, etc.Buddhism by traditional definition is not a religion. Neither is Christianity, as we will see. There is faith, but not necessarily belief. In pure Buddhism, there is no personal deity either. Buddhahood is in each one of us already. It simply needs to be awakened and as we practice we become gradually enlightened; again, not attaining it from somewhere, but coming to it in us. Especially in Zen Buddhism, there are no dogmas or institutionalized religion in the Western sense. I like to make the distinction between ‘faith’, which is basic trust seeking spiritual solace or refuge; and ‘belief’ in something that is of religious nature, i.e. something that cannot be proven and may or may not turn out to be true. For instance, all throughout history people or whole organizations (churches) taught and believed tenets that later on proved to be false, e.g. the Galileo incident, creationism disproved by evolution, etc. – Another example is the historic-critical method of bible interpretation, which is basically an admission that many if not most of the biblical narratives, long believed to be literal-historical, are merely allegorical under the backdrop of conveying religious truth. Thus, any reasonable, mainline theology nowadays no longer possibly could lay claim to scientific statements interpreted out of Christian scriptures, as were once done. This naturally evokes the dilemma of reconciliation between theology and science – a difficult topic of discussion indeed, as long as God is understood from a human projection. Once we open to a broader perspective to what is culturally termed as God, Allah, Yahweh and such, our faith will be easier to understand and thus become more reconciled between differing cultures and religious experiences.
Interestingly, the first Christians in the Roman empire were widely labeled as αθεοι (átheoi) – hence the term “atheist” – since they did not fit the common understanding, religious persuasion and state-held doctrine of how deity was to be defined, worshiped and taught. On these historical premises alone, Christianity itself could not be considered a religion and hence suffered rejection and persecution.
A quick look into Christian history will confirm that, although attempts have been made to bring back the ancient faith onto its mystic roots – which I trust to be core Christian identity – this aim stayed mostly hidden behind monastic walls. Much of which what is sold to us today as “Christian”, very few know, let alone find, solace and renewal in Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and many more.
Jesus Christ is seen by many Buddhists as a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being, who has refused nirvana (heaven), but instead returned to earth in order to liberate others. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the third jewel “I vow to live to the benefit of others”. For the true Christian, this Christ cannot be found in scriptures and ritual formulas alone. The savior must be found within each one of us.
If Christianity is ever to stand the test of our modern age, outside of ignorant fundamentalism, blind institutional obedience and positivistic apologetics, it must return to its mystic roots, which are closer to Buddhism than one may suspect on the surface, though culturally and theologically different.
Reality as it presents itself is found in the present, in the Christ alive in us – instead of merely a religion, a belief system.